The images from last week’s May Day protests look like a montage from a movie set in the 1960s. Sign- and bullhorn-wielding protesters, organized by the Occupy movement, railed against the capitalist industrial complex, while riot gear-clad police sought to contain them with tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Dozens were arrested.
Weeks earlier, thousands gathered in cities across the country to demand the arrest of George Zimmerman. These protests were searing indictments of the Sanford, Florida police department’s handling of Zimmerman’s killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. They were also rallying cries against the implicit racism embedded in Martin’s identification as suspicious, and the gun laws that still buttress Zimmerman’s defense. Those who couldn’t physically take part in the marches took to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to express solidarity via status updates, shared links to articles, posted pictures, and hashtags.
The protests, marches, and Tumblr feeds springing up against capitalism and racism reflect the confluence of deep frustration with the status quo — and the means enabling people to more easily protest. We are in a new moment that echoes the start of the Civil Rights Movement, when thousands in Montgomery, Alabama carpooled and walked to work in solidarity with Rosa Parks after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955 — another organized group effort.
In other words, mass frustration, social media and timing have brought the 1960s into 2012. How can the black community best take advantage of this new surge of populist activism?
“This is an exciting time,” Ytasha L. Womack, author of Post Black: How a New Generation is Defining African-American Identity, told theGrio. “Many people want to explore ways that re-frame how we discuss and act on issues that have defined the past. We want to look at what’s changed, what has not, and how we can build a better tomorrow.”
Veteran NAACP leader and former professor of civil rights Julian Bond cites the ability to identify with Trayvon Martin as part of the reason the boy’s death sparked a renewed interest in activism. “So many people identified with him because they had a little brother or a kid down the street or somebody they knew who’s like him. It’s like Obama said, had he had a [son], he’d look like Trayvon Martin,” Bond told theGrio. “And I think all of us felt the same way. I have three sons, and one of them easily, or all three of them could have been this kid. So it just strikes us in a peculiar way. It’s so horrendous that it happened. The law that allowed it to happen is itself horrendous — and it just struck a chord with black people everywhere and some white people as well.”
With the proliferation of social media tools available to express our outrage, the 24-hour news cycle that feeds on provocative sound bytes, and the presidential election just six months away, the time is ripe for discussing weighty matters. Bond believes African-Americans need to seize the moment to channel the activism sparked by Trayvon Martin and Occupy Wall street into concrete political work. Otherwise, the black community has a lot to lose.“You look at our life expectancy, you look at our median family income, you look at our rate of all kinds of things that decide how well or how poor your group of people are doing,” Bond said, ”[and] we’re just not doing that well. …To the degree we struggle and fight, the better off we’ll be.”
It remains to be seen whether crises like the Trayvon Martin tragedy will push black voters to participate more deeply in politics. The Root reports that in 2010, three quarters of young black voters did not exercise their voting rights.
”[Y]ou’d think with this presidential election looming as it is and the stakes [being] so high in the election with depending on who wins — we’ll either continue the kind of progress we’ve tried to make over the last three years or we’ll just go to hell in a hand basket if one of these idiots wins instead of the president. We’ll all be in terrible terrible shape,” the civil rights icon continued. “So if more people aren’t participating now and aren’t registering to vote and then aren’t turning out to vote … If they’re not doing everything they can, then shame on them.”
Womack says apathy is not the real issue for Generations X, Y, and the Millennials. “There are probably more ways to help than ever before, but the choices can be overwhelming.” And daunting, she adds, “How does one effectively create change in a mammoth-sized system?”
Both Womack and Bond recommend learning the history of movements past to help inform the success of present activism. When people see themselves as a product and beneficiary of the events that came before them, Womack contends, “it helps people to understand the power they have to shape their lives and to create a better today and tomorrow.”
Bond was honored last week at a fundraiser to endow a civil rights professorship at the University of Virginia, where he taught Civil Rights History since 1992. He says most students (of all races) know only two names and four words in connection with the Civil Rights Movement — Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and “I have a dream.” For blacks to make better use of the political energies of the present, the community must know more about the past.
“The history of the Civil Rights Movement is much more” than most young people today understand, Bond concluded, “and unless most of us widen our familiarity with this history and study the ways that those who came before us knocked down the walls and opened the doors to progress making it possible for us to do what we do today, made it possible for Barack Obama to be president … we’re in danger of losing what we’ve won and slipping backward.”
The former NAACP chairman said joining an established organization, in addition to rallying and Tweeting, can help blacks prevent this from occurring. “I recommend that you join an organization — and don’t make a brand new organization, we have almost too many organizations right now. Join an existing organization that you think has done a good job over the past decade or two and see if you can help it do a better job,” Bond suggested. “I’m partial to the NAACP which has been around since 1909.”
Yet, “you don’t have to join the NAACP, there are others as well,” Bond advised. “But join some organization and help it do what it does better.”
Follow Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond on Twitter at @nanaekua